The Battle of Wake Island: America’s Alamo in the Pacific
Outnumbered American Marines, aviators and sailors fought an epic battle against a superior Japanese landing force.
Wake Island is a Western Pacific triangular-shaped atoll made up of a reef and three islands: Wilkes, Peale and Sand Island surrounding a central lagoon situated on the other side of the international date line. It is located approximately 2,300 miles west of Honolulu, 1,200 miles from Midway Island 1,500 miles from Guam to the west, and 2,000 miles southeast of Tokyo. In reality, it is closer to Tokyo than to Hawaii. This makes it an island of strategic importance.
While the island is essentially treeless and only a few above sea level it has served as an important part of the US Pacific military strategy for over 75 years.
Originally visited by Spanish explorers in the mid 1500’s, Wake was named by Capt. Samuel Wake an American sea captain while visiting the island in 1796. America’s interest in the island came after acquiring the Hawaiian Islands and Guam in 1898. The atoll was acquired by the US in January 1899 during the period of active US acquisition in the Pacific. Wake Island was considered initally as a natural waypoint for placement of the transpacific undersea telegraph cable between Hawaii and Guam but was bypassed in favor of the larger Midway island.
Pan Am and Wake Island
In the 1930’s with the advent of more reliable airplane transport, airlines like Pan Am were looking for new routes to expand their passenger service. One very attractive route was US mainland to Hawaii. The distance of 2,500 miles meant a 7-10 day trip by ship to America’s Pacific paradise, but with Pan Am’s flying boat this trip could be made in as little as 18 hours!
Pan Am’s intrepid leader Juan Trippe looked at the Pacific and envisioned crossing it in a series of hops from island to island with the final stop at Manila. Key to this strategy was locating islands that were US possessions that could house bases that would support flight operations with refueling, maintenance and hotel accommodations for traveling passengers and crew.
Trippe found Wake Island in an old book about whaling expeditions on a trip to the NY Public library to research possible locations. Wake had become forgotten. Now it became the final addition to his planned route which included Midway, Wake, Guam and Manila.
He needed the permission of the US government (Dept of the Navy)to get access and begin the construction of bases on the island. The US Navy was only too happy to grant Pan Am permission. They were concerned about the Japanese who were busy constructing military facilities in the Mariana and Marshall Islands in defiance of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.
Having Trippe build a base of operations at Wake Island would allow the Navy to monitor Japanese activity in the Marshall Islands some 600 miles south. In addition, while the planned Pan Am flights were a commercial operation, the projection of American air power would be desirable to demonstrate America’s intention to play a roll in the future development of the Pacific. Officially the Navy designated Wake Island as a “bird sanctuary”.
The Navy sent a survey ship to complete a survey of the island in March of 1935. Pan Am followed that with the ship the SS North Haven loaded with the materials needed to construct its facilities (including a locomotive and railroad tracks) in May of 1935. Construction began in earnest on Peale Island and demolition of the shallow coralheads in the lagoon was undertaken to create a mile long landing zone for flying boats to land. A second visit by the North Haven with additional items was completed in February of 1936.
The construction of a 48 room hotel for overnight accommodations was completed along with a power station, seaplane dock, radio station and barracks. Workers were also imported from Guam to staff the kitchens and serve as wait staff.
The first transpacific flights arrived in the fall of 1936. The flight involved five legs with overnight stops and 60 hours of flying time. Tickets were sold starting at $950 (for reference the average yearly salary in 1935 was $474)! Two flights per week were scheduled one east bound and one west bound.
Pan Am expanded service to include Macao and Hong Kong and eventually offered service to Australia as well.
The Military Arrives at Wake
In late 1940 the US Defense Department decided to fortify Pacific forward US operating bases like Wake and Midway as war with Japan seem imminent. A consortium of civilian engineering contract firms was formed,the CPNAB (Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases). In January 1941 the US Navy began construction of military base in cooperation with the CPNAB and eventually employed 1,155 civilian workers from the Morrison-Knudson engineering company. Many of these workers had come from other large government projects like the Coulee Dam and Boulder Dam and were well seasoned and used to working in harsh conditions for long periods of time. They were constructing an airstrip, aviations facilities, defensive gun emplacements and barracks to house troops that were being sent to the island.
Not Ready for War…Yet
The Wake military garrison consisted of 450 Marines in total including 50 aviators and aviation support personnel. There were 68 naval personnel and a 5 man Army radio team. This was 2,100 less men than the minimum for adequate defense of the island according to military strategists at the time. During drills it was clear that with only 450 Marines, it wasn’t possible to man all the guns due to the lack of personnel. None of the aviators, officers or naval personnel had helmets, side arms or primary weapons. The governing principle from the military supply was they were to be issued at the final destination. They never arrived at Wake.
The island armaments included: six 5-inch coastal artillery guns (acquired and repurposed from the battleship USS Texas), 12 3-inch antiaircraft guns (with only a single director/aimer among them), 18 50-cal machine guns and 30 30-cal machine guns. Missing were their air search radar units which were “on the dock” at Pearl Harbor waiting for shipment.
The island had small compliment of 12 F4 Wildcat fighters that had just been dropped off from the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise (this is the reason it wasn’t in Pearl Harbor during the December 7th attack). None of the Marine aviators had more than 30 hours of flight time in their planes and none had ever fired their machine guns or dropped a bomb. Interestingly there were no standard bombs located on Wake island and the bomb racks that were installed on the planes did not match up to the mounting surfaces on the 100lb bombs (normally aircraft of this type would have 250lb or 500 lb bombs) stockpiled on Wake. Immediately upon arrival the ground crew began engineering work arounds and came up with a series of bands that made mounting the bombs possible.
War breaks out December 8, 1941
The Army radio team where the first to be informed that war had broken out when they heard a broadcast from the Army Radio station at Hickham field in Hawaii that they were under attack, it was the real thing!
The Marine commander Col. Devereux had the bugler call to arms and the entire contingent was on alert for an attack or invasion. With limited fuel on the island and no chance for replenishment it was decided to have four aircraft scout for possible ships or planes several times per day.
The Pan Am Clipper had left that morning for Guam but was recalled by the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. When it returned, its captain agreed to provide airborne patrol for 100 miles around Wake if he had fighter escort. It was decided that he would leave at noon.
At precisely 11:58 am, 36 Mitsubishi “Nell” bombers arrived from their bases in the Marshall Islands to bomb and strafe the island. Their approach had been hidden by cloud banks that had rolled in. They succeeded in destroying eight of the Wildcats on the ground and killed half of the compliment of Marine aviators and mechanics in the first attack. The airborn Wildcats never saw the bombers due to the weather.
After the Japanese strafed the Pan Am hotel and the Clipper, the plane had scores of holes in it but was deemed airworthy and preparations were made for immediate departure with the remaining passengers. The Clipper left at 1 PM.
This was the first of daily Japanese bombing runs that ran almost continuously for the next two weeks. The Wildcats were expecting the Japanese and shot down two of the bombers the next day. While the airfield and aviation facilites were largely destroyed, the defensive positions were well hidden and camoflaged and survived largely intact. The Marines aided by the civilian workman teamed up to bolster the defensive positions, move key supplies into field depots and fed the soldiers who were manning the guns 24/7.
December 11th…The Japanese Attack!
Movement at sea and a faint blink of light was reported by a night sentry lookout at 2:58 am on December 11th. The marines and sailors were now on high alert as they identified several large Japanese ships in the darkness. Major Devereux told the marines to hold their fire until he gave the word. The only way they would have a chance was to lure the ships into point blank range and then open fire. As the morning light began to rise, the marines were able to identify two light cruisers, six destsEroyers, two transports and several smaller ships. Major Putnam, the leader of the four remaining Wildcats called into to HQ to coordiate his take off with the first shots fired by the American shore artillery.
The cruisers had larger guns than those on the island, so the only way to successfully attack them was to have them sail close into shore. The Japanese naval commander Admiral Sadamichi believed the reports he was given by his bomber crews that they had annilated all the major resistance on the island. In Japanese, “asa meschi mae” literally something so simple it can be accomplished before breakfast! His 800 troops of the special naval landing force were loaded into boats offshore to prepare for the invasion.
At 5 o’clock the cruiser made a run parallel to shore and proceeded to open fire. She was followed by the rest of the Japanese force as they came closer into shore. A group of three destroyers then ran in front of the cruiser and began firing as they came even closer. When the cruiser came in to within 4500 yards, the order was given to commence firing. The first salvos went long, but at 5700 yards the marines 5" shells hit the cruiser at the waterline and she slowed down. Another salvo found her at 7000 yards. A destroyer tried to run in front of her as protection but took a 5" round to her fo-c’sle and ran off. The third salvo hit the cruisers guns and she was out of the fight.
Another battery was firing at the ships and caught a Japanese destroyer trying to speed into shore at 4500 yards and she literally just blew up with the loss of all hands. A transport was hit at 10,000 yards and lay dead in the water. The marines proceeded to hit (not sink) another destroyer and cruiser. At 7:10 with no more targets to shoot at the marines stopped firing.
Out at sea the battle continued as the Wildcats straffed and bombed the retreating Japanese invasion force. The aviators sunk a destroyer and later a submarine that surfaced 25 miles off shore.
So in all the Americans had defeated a superior Japanese landing force and exacted a serious toll of two destroyers sunk, several other ships damaged (the first Japanese surface ship lost in the war) with minimal losses of their own. It was the first time the Japanese had been halted by the American military and against long odds. When asked via Morse code by Pearl Harbor what they needed after the battle was over, it was rumored they said “send us more Japanese”.
The stand by the marines, sailors, army and civilians caught the attention of the American public who were hungry for some goods news as it seemed that everywhere else the Japanese were unstoppable.
The newspapers and radio were filled with reports about the heroes of Wake and how they had turned back the Japanese juggernaut. Perhaps America could win this war!
Stay tuned for part II, in the next article including:
-America sends the Navy to the rescue…or not?
-Japan returns to Wake Island
Thanks for reading!